I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Pure magic from Gustavo Gimeno and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Tempest, Op. 18
Maurice Ravel: Piano concerto in D Major ‘For the left hand’
Dmitry Shostakovich: Piano concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloé, Suite No. 2

Yuja Wang, piano
Gustavo Gimeno, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar), 3 June 2019

Two 20th-century piano concertos flanked by two short orchestral works made for an intriguing bit of programming in this concert of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg (OPL) under their Music Director Gustavo Gimeno. It carried the promise of colour, brilliance and passion with works by Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Shostakovich, and featured super star pianist Yuja Wang as the soloist in both concertos. As the beginning of the orchestra’s European June tour, it turned out to be a highly propitious evening.

Gustavo Gimeno
(© Marco Borggreve)

The opening work was Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard symphonic fantasia after Shakespeare The Tempest, Op. 18, from 1873. The Bozar programme booklet, however, confusingly described at some length a totally different work: The Storm, an overture adapted from Alexander Ostrovsky’s play, which Tchaikovsky composed in 1864 while still a conservatory student. Although The Storm is not without merit, The Tempest is definitely far more rewarding. The opening seascape is one of Tchaikovsky’s most pictorial pages – both Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov would remember it well – and the ardour of the love theme is comparable to his more famous Romeo and Juliet overture. What the audience eventually thought they heard this evening in the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts, is anybody’s guess, since no correction was provided. In any case, it was clear that most in the packed hall were there for Yuja Wang.

The Tempest is not an easy work to open with and the evocation of the sea was initially somewhat wanting in atmosphere, while the seams between the episodes ideally could have been handled more imaginatively. Yet the quality of the OPL was undeniable and once the storm was unleashed everything fell into place. Gimeno, a calm figure on the rostrum, conducting with a clear beat and a gracefully drawing left hand that is more than a little reminiscent of the late Claudio Abbado, secured a visceral, highly theatrical reading. The storm scene itself, with ferocious brass, battling timpani and bass drum, and shrieking high flutes, contrasted with the full-blooded romance, at first gently sung by the muted cellos but emphatically developed by Gimeno and eventually played with wild abandon. The OPL’s brass excelled once again before the return of the sea theme, now more focused than at the beginning.

Two different piano concertos, Ravel and Shostakovich, two different worlds. They may be short, but to tackle them the same evening is quite a tour de force. Yet piano prodigy Yuja Wang isn’t one to be daunted easily. She has all the technical prowess it takes, and then some, to perform Maurice Ravel’s Piano concerto ‘For the left hand’, but I was left wondering if she also had the right temperament for it. The fortissimo piano entrance was superbly handled, though in spite of all her energy her playing lacked a true savage edge for this pitch dark score and somehow I felt she was outgunned (if not drowned out) by the magnificent orchestra. Ravel gave his orchestra plenty to say in this concerto, and Gimeno and the OPL delivered it all in an admirable manner.

Wang reappeared for Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano concerto after the break. It gave her time to change her dress from midnight blue into white. She also took her time to do so. As with the Ravel she kept the audience waiting for long minutes to arrive on stage. It’s all part of the Yuja show and just like the mechanical bows and the applause-milking, these diva manners don’t necessarily make her a more attractive performer. Not that many cared, I assume, clearly in thrall to her talent. They came here to be dazzled and have a good time, and to be sure, nobody left the hall indifferently.

Shostakovich’s generally upbeat concerto, written as a present for his son’s 19th birthday in 1957, suited her better than the Ravel. The opening Allegro was tremendously exciting and jolly good fun. Soloist and orchestra seemed to spark each other off and the lean orchestration gave Wang’s piano more breathing space. Rhythmically secure, orchestra and soloist worked up to an exhilarating first movement. Wang relished the jaunty finale with astonishing speed as well as clarity, although the bittersweet Andante felt a tad cool and uninvolved.

After eking out the ovation for a longer time than necessary, the enraptured audience was finally gratified with two encores out of Wang’s music-box, the delicate Melodie dell’Orfeo from Gluck arranged by Sgambati and the flashy Variations from Bizet’s Carmen from Horowitz which brought the hall to near hysteria.

The programming might have been slightly unconventional with the two piano concertos straddling the interval and ending with a short orchestral work. It was enough to confuse patrons who already wanted to leave after the Shostakovich. In any case they would have missed the best part of the evening, a stunning rendition of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé Suite No. 2.

While most of this concert was a true feast of colour and sound, the best was kept for last. Gimeno, guiding with a clear direction and purpose, struck an ideal balance between sweep and details in a Daphnis and Chloé, sans chorus, but brimming with life. The daybreak was breathtaking, veiled in mystery at the outset but morphing with colourful contributions from the winds, in deftly handled crescendos towards a saturated climax. The polish and textural clarity of the OPL strings, the magnificent solos (in particular the 1st flute from, I gather, Etienne Plasman in the Pantomime), the superbly judged dynamics and the impeccable balance contributed to a real sense of magic. A rousingly spectacular Bacchanale, topped by no-holds-barred percussion and brass, brought this unabashedly hedonistic moment to a thrilling end.

Gimeno generously sprinkled some more magic with Le jardin féerique, the apotheosis from Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye. This was a wonderful evening in many ways. Gustavo Gimeno has been heading the Luxembourg formation since 2015. Judging from this concert, their collaboration is a true winner.


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Magnificent Mendelssohn and Brahms from Blomstedt and the Concertgebouw

Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, “Scottish”, Op. 56
Wilhelm Stenhammar: Sången (cantata), Op. 44 (Intermezzo)
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 11 January 2019

© Martin U.K. Lengemann

Herbert Blomstedt (© Martin U.K. Lengemann)

Orchestras stay, while conductors come and go – so it normally goes. However, in the case of maestro Herbert Blomstedt you might think differently. He is 91, very active, and carries some 65 years of conducting experience with him. That’s more candles than many orchestras have to blow, including most of the period-instrument ensembles. Blomstedt brings a communicative sense of joy to music-making and his conducting seems alien to any sign of routine or tiredness. Returning to Brussels with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO), Blomstedt treated us to a magnificent concert with utterly compelling readings of symphonies from Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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Leipzig Gewandhaus dazzles but fail to move in Brussels

Thomas Larcher: Chiasma
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, KV 550
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 29 April 2018

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” form quite a formidable pairing in concert. Emotional music that packages beauty with nostalgia and sadness, yet expressed in such an individual manner that performing the symphonies back to back proves extra challenging. In Brussels, on his maiden tour as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons faced that challenge with brilliant and often spectacular readings, which were dazzling rather than moving.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Venezuelan Wall of Sound

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (fragments)
Julián Orbón: Tres versiones sinfónicas
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #5

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 11-12 January 2015

Touring Europe, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (SBSO) under their Music Director Gustavo Dudamel performed two concerts in Brussels. Dudamel already guested in 2009 with the Gothenburg Symphony, but for the orchestra it was a long overdue debut in the Belgian capital. The arrival of El Sistema’s crown jewel and its brightest gem had been well prepared in the media and not surprisingly on both nights the Centre for Fine Arts was filled to capacity. Perhaps not so much the new audience that is often mentioned in connection with “the Dude”, but people of all ages who still made it quite clear for what reason they attended the concerts. That recently the praised Venezuelan educational system received a fair amount of flak, or that the country itself is going through rough times, wasn’t going to spoil the fun. Dudamel and the Bolivars were in town.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Abdel Rahman El Bacha Saves the Day

Francis Poulenc: Orchestral Suite “Les Biches”
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71, Act II

Abdel Rahman El Bacha, piano
Belgian National Orchestra/Andrew Litton
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 2 October 2013

With ballet music – Poulenc’s Les Biches and Act 2 from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker – framing the Piano concerto from Ravel, the Belgian National Orchestra under American guest conductor Andrew Litton promised an evening full of elegance, color and sophistication. Soloist for the Ravel was the Franco-Lebanese pianist Abdel Rahman El Bacha, laureate of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in this very same place in 1978, then a mere 19-year old. The present concert was in aid of CAP 48, a fundraising initiative of the Belgian TV network working hard for the integration of disabled people – though sad to see in this respect that the concert hall was only two thirds filled this evening.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Heavenly Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture “Leonore” #2; Piano Concerto #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19; Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60
Maria João Pires, piano
Orchestra Mozart/Bernard Haitink
Brussels, Center for Fine Arts, 29 September 2013

Cancellations can go in every direction. An opportunity to see the legendary couple Claudio Abbado-Martha Argerich once more at work was abruptly shattered when the 80-year old Italian maestro had to annul his European tour with his Orchestra Mozart on doctor’s orders. It had been almost fifteen years since Abbado was last in Brussels, expectations were understandably high, but the “big comeback” was clearly not to be this time. And with Abbado out, so was Argerich, and the scheduled Haydn-Mozart program.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Hungarian Magic

Antonino Pasculli: Concerto on Themes from Donizetti’s “La Favorita”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto for Oboe & Orchestra in C Major, K. 314
Franz Liszt: A Faust-Symphony

François Leleux, oboe
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 6 March 2013

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Under the guidance of maestro Iván Fischer (co-founder with Zoltán Kocsis), the orchestra not only established itself as one of Hungary’s foremost cultural entities, it also went on to cut a strong profile on the international stage. The program they offered in Brussels was delightfully unusual and of the highest level throughout. Starting with a small oboe festival with pieces from the little-known Pasculli and Mozart, featuring the high-spirited François Leleux as soloist, it was the rarely heard Faust-Symphony from Franz Liszt which acted as the focal point of the evening.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Dazzling Rollercoaster

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39/4-6; Elegy, Op. 3/1
Gabriel Fauré: Ballade, Op. 19
Alexander Scriabin: Sonata #5
Johannes Brahms: 7 Fantasies, Op. 116
Isaac Albéniz: Triana (from Iberia)
Claude Debussy: La soirée dans Grenade (from Estampes)
Vladimir Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from G. Bizet’s “Carmen”

Yuja Wang, piano
Brussels Conservatory, 20 March 2012

The acclaimed Chinese pianist Yuja Wang made her debut in Belgium with the kind of disparate program that would have made giants like Sviatoslav Richter think twice, yet which seems designed primarily to demonstrate how dazzling a virtuoso she is. (Richter played what he felt like playing at a particular moment, but that’s another story.) Wang’s Brussels recital was largely culled from her coinciding new CD-release, imponderably titled “Fantasia” and sounded in spite of the hyped promise of “a poetic evening” for the most part like a no-brainer, rollercoaster collection of miniatures and bravura transcriptions by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Debussy, Albeniz and Horowitz, wherein the difference between the official program and the encores eventually went completely adrift. The bits of late Brahms and Fauré thrown in for weight couldn’t dispel the frustrating feeling that this evening we only heard part of her talent. Or didn’t we?
Read the full review on Classical Net